Mom put on her lipstick to face a dozen crusted eyes and the tang of unwelcome smells in the assisted living center. She watched me pace, her own brown eyes calm and maddeningly logical.
“Settle down. A temporary stay isn’t so bad,” she said. “I’ll be back home before you know it.” She’d fractured her wrist during an uncharacteristic tumble in her bathroom - after surviving two major surgeries and radiation for a sarcoma in her pectoral muscle. After just beginning to drive again. At age ninety-three.
She’d be fine, she said. She'd be nestled in her house across the Mississippi long before Autumn’s windy nip and certainly before the Mississippi turned cold and sluggish.
I decided to believe her.
One of the residents – whiskers on her chin and big veins on her legs - had moved into assisted living years before Mom arrived. Mom often sat with her in a patch of July sun, the woman absently plucking the arms of her wheelchair with thin fingers. The poor soul, I thought, only able to inch her wheelchair along with her feet, hands waffling on the wall-mounted railing.
She never spoke. But they spent long stretches together in the dayroom: Mom talking quietly to her as she drowsed, straightening her shawl and watching the spring leaves blowing, silver side up, presaging rain. They sat together at dinner, Mom making chatty conversation, her friend silent, shuffling broccoli with tremulous hands.
The weeks passed and Mom’s fracture slowly mended. I visited regularly and averted my face regularly. Or at least I tried.
August arrived, its unwieldy heat boring down on our heads and as the heat grew, Mom’s breath shortened. She tired during walks down the hall, needing to rest in the striped chair outside her friend’s room. Wary and worried, I made an appointment with the doctor.
The grass had turned brown and it crunched under our slow and puzzled feet as we loaded her into my car for the trip to the doctor’s office.
We sat in a cold clinic room, magazines meant to fill our empty laps lying neglected, their covers loud with color. The doctor performed his gentle exam, then lowered himself down to Mom’s side and told us that the cloud on her chest x-ray was the sarcoma spread far into her lungs. No doubt we thanked him, probably shook his hand, I don’t remember now.
On our drive back, we tried to swallow our sobs, drowning them with drive-through ice cream puddled in sad cups.
A chest tube.
At the end of August, as days and days of rain pushed inexorably across the plains, Mom declined. She mumbled from her thrashed and wrinkled bed and refused water. My husband and son choked goodbyes, their heads down, their shoulders rounded.
I made one last, terse call and the hospice chaplain came and went, his coat smelling of smoke and wet. I lost track of the hours, rocking there in her small room in a haze of liniment and cold pork chop dinners, turning my sticky eyes towards the window, the wallpaper, anywhere, anywhere. Staff poured me coffee and asked if I needed cream. The tenderness of the question brought me to tears. I turned my face towards them, finally, towards it all.
Sometime during that night, a pair of feet appeared through the crack in the door- feet in pink foam slippers, propelling a wheelchair. I saw her knees, lap and shawl, then her tilted head. She didn’t notice me, pale in the corner – just made the sign of the cross with one hand and called out, “Good night, sweetie. God bless you.” I fumbled to the door, reaching for her hand, and we looked at each other, faces bleak.
She asked one quavery question, “Is she going to make it?”
She shimmered through my prisms of tears. I said, as gently as I could, “No, she’s not.”
She bowed her head and crept to her room.
Near eleven o’clock on that thundering night, Mom died. Through her wracked, final breaths, I held her with quiet arms and eyes, trying to be as still and solid as her friend was in her silence.
The Mississippi overflowed its banks that summer, the summer of 2008. No one was ready for that kind of deluge, that kind of pain.
And some people lost everything.
Jane Banning lives in Wisconsin. She has received honorable mentions in the 2008 Micro Fiction Contest, the 2009 Glass Woman Prize Contest and a semi-finalist designation in the 2012 Flash Fiction Chronicles Contest. Her work has appeared in the University of Iowa Daily Palette, Six Sentences, Long Story Short, Boston Literary Magazine, Lyrical Passion Poetry, 52250 Flash and Fiction365, among others. She is working on her first novel, "Silo".